by Larry Hodges
Tippecanoe was dead. After only thirty days in office, the nation's ninth president, 68-year-old William Henry Harrison, was gone, done in by pneumonia after giving a two-hour inaugural address in freezing cold, telling the American people all the things he would now never do.
"Is this the one?" whispered a voice in Vice President Tyler's head.
Tyler looked up, startled. Who had said that? He bit his upper lip for a moment, and decided he had imagined it.
Six feet tall and with the long nose and high cheekbones of a classic Roman statesman, Tyler stood at the Brown Hotel in Washington D.C. at noon on April 6, 1841, ready to take the oath of office from the aging Judge William Cranch as the next U.S. president. He knew a lot of people would be unhappy when they discovered he was not really a Whig, even though he had been elected as one. Already he had heard some were calling him "His Accidency."
"This must be it," said the voice in his head.
Tyler looked up again, trying to locate the voice. It was not Cranch's voice, and nobody else was close enough to have whispered it. Hearing voices was not a good prelude to becoming president. The voice must be his imagination running wild--he hoped. The last thing the country needed was another crazy president.
Andrew Jackson. Tyler shook his head. He had originally supported the man, but then they had had several spats, which led to his leaving the Democratic Party back in '36. It had seemed the end of his political career. Then the Whig Party needed someone popular, from the south and younger than Harrison to run for Vice president, and so Tyler, 51, had answered the call: "Tippecanoe and Tyler too." Somehow, the Whigs never expected the "too" part to become president, or thought about whether Tyler really was a Whig. He was not.
But he had reconsidered. After all, he had been elected on the Whig ticket, and he had matured past his headstrong days. He had come to realize it would not be fair to govern like the opposing Democrats. This truly was Harrison's term, and he would govern like Harrison and as a Whig. That was why, during the campaign, he had said, "I am in favor of what General Harrison and Mr. Clay are in favor of." He had withstood withering criticism for this seeming lack of independence, especially the part about Clay. But people voted for the head of the ticket, not the one running for vice president. Otherwise, they would not have lost Tyler's home state of Virginia. That still stung.
"I am here," whispered the voice in his head.
Just ignore it, Tyler thought, it has to be my imagination, brought on by the stress of the moment. This time biting his lower lip, he put it out of his mind. His thoughts went back to politics.
If he ran for re-election, then he could run on his own values, and that would be his term. With this decision he had found peace even as he prepared to take the oath of office and enter what he called the bed of thorns.
Except now he had the feeling he was not alone. It was as if . . . something was looking out of his eyes from inside his head. He tried to shrug it off, but the feeling would not go away.
"Are you ready, sir?" Cranch asked.
Tyler nodded, and reached up and brushed back the tuft of hair that dropped down onto his forehead like a spearhead aimed at his heart. Then he raised his right hand and put his left on a bible. Judge Cranch administered the oath of office in the dim light to the tenth president of the United States.
"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Tyler lowered his hand.
He felt woozy. He often suffered from colds and other maladies, but this was different. Then everything went fuzzy and disappeared like a wisp of smoke.
"Someone has joined us. A little soon, I would think?"
Tyler recognized the voice--but it was not possible. He was dead.
He opened his eyes; he did not remember closing them. Looking over him was William Henry Harrison.
"It is John!" Harrison said.
"Who?" someone asked.
"John Tyler, my vice president!"
Tyler sat up from a padded white chair. How had he gotten there? Several men stood about him, including Harrison. He stared at them--it could not be!
"So this is John Tyler?" said John Adams, who had died in 1826, fifteen years ago. "The man William said road his coattails into the vice presidency? How quaint."
"Strange," said the tall Thomas Jefferson, who had also died in 1826. Tyler vividly remembered Jefferson as a dinner guest many years ago, just months after he had left the presidency, when Tyler had been nineteen.
"It has been just a month since William arrived," Jefferson continued. "Why so soon?"
"I said, cluck like a chicken!" The also-familiar voice was from further off, and was followed by a gunshot. Sitting in a corner trembling was John Quincy Adams, covering his face with his hands. Quietly, under his breath, he began clucking like a chicken. Standing over him with a smoking pistol was an angry-looking Andrew Jackson. "Louder!" Jackson screamed. Adams complied.
"Where am I?" Tyler asked. He looked about. The occupants of the room were the first nine presidents of the United States. The Founding Fathers and their immediate successors. He gulped.
George Washington, sitting in a corner, head slightly tilted, a parrot on his shoulder. Something seemed wrong about him; it took a minute before Tyler saw the bit of drool coming out the corner of his mouth. Tyler had been nine when Washington died in 1799.
John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the very short James Madison, James Monroe, and William Henry Harrison all stood over him, looking amused. John Quincy Adams still cowered in the corner, with Andrew Jackson now beating him with the flat of his sword. The short and heavily sideburned but balding Martin Van Buren stood behind Jackson, cheering him on. Like Tyler, all were dressed in their finest, full of frilly lace, bows, and buttons.
Of the nine, only J-Q Adams, Jackson, and Van Buren were still alive. Tyler had met them all except for Washington and John Adams. How had he and the others gotten here? It simply was not possible.
They were in a room from Mount Vernon, George Washington's home. He had visited it during his time as Virginia governor. The blue walls were covered with portraits of George and Martha Washington and their family members. Ornate white-padded wooden chairs lined the walls and circled the small dinner table in the center. A fire--heatless?--burned in a large fireplace, under a landscape painting, surrounded by intricate carvings that Tyler recognized as Washington's coat-of-arms: three red stars over two horizontal red bars on a white shield.
There were no doorways.
"John, what the devil are you doing here?" Harrison asked. "I took the oath of office only a month ago. The next president should not be here for another four years."
"I took the oath of office a few minutes ago," Tyler said. "You died after thirty days in office. What is going on?" This has got to be some version of Hell, he thought. What else could it be? Perhaps an assassin had shot him at the Brown Hotel, killing him instantly. He did not remember feeling anything, but what else could explain how the world had dissolved around him, and his appearance here with all his predecessors? And that voice in his head--had it been a demon preparing to take him to the underworld?
"I only served thirty days?" Harrison said, his jaw literally dropping. "How did I die?"
"Pneumonia," Tyler said. "You gave a two-hour inaugural speech in freezing cold, without hat or overcoat. It would have been longer if Daniel Webster had not edited it down."
"Jesus!" Harrison exclaimed. "I had something short planned."
"Well, your slug did not," Jefferson said. Tyler had no idea what that meant.
"I doubt pneumonia killed me," Harrison said. "It had to be all the political squabbling over political appointments. Henry Clay must be dancing on my grave."
John Adams had stepped back, sighing as he watched Jackson continue to thrash his son. "Defend yourself, you miserable coward," he muttered under his breath.
"Like you did with the Alien and Sedition Acts?" Jefferson asked.
"That was not me," Adams said, icily emphasizing each word. "And yet that is probably what I will be remembered for." Shaking his head, he turned and walked to the far side of the room away from Jackson's bullying of his son.
"Sure seemed like you at the time," Jefferson said to the retreating back of the nation's second president. He glanced at John Quincy Adams, who was fending off the latest blows from Jackson. "A coward is more exposed to quarrels than a man of spirit. One of my favorite sayings." He turned back to Tyler. "The first time Andy beat up Junior, his dad jumped in, and he and Andy really went at it. But he got tired of defending his son; so did we all. It took a few years, but Andy finally broke Junior's spirit." He shook his head. "I believe you know everyone in the room. All of us came here right after taking the oath of office. I have been here for forty years."
"Thirty-two for me," Madison said.
"Twenty-four here," the tall and cheery-looking Monroe said. "Poor Washington arrived fifty-two years ago."
"What is this place?" Tyler asked.
"Somehow it is a replica of the West Parlor at Washington's estate," Madison said, "created by creatures from--you will not believe this--another planet."
"Another star, in fact," Jefferson added. "At least, that's what they say."
"We call them slugs," Madison continued. "When you see them, you will know why."
"Giant, super-intelligent slugs," Jefferson said. "You see, whenever a U.S. president takes the oath of office, his body is taken over by the mind of one of these creatures."
"Yes," Jefferson continued. "They have a name for themselves, but it is a smell, not a sound, sort of like lemons."
"They are tourists," Madison said. "The ones who take over our bodies. There is a company called Galactic Vacations which sells the presidencies to wealthy vacationers."
"John," Harrison said, "you do not need to repeat everything back to us. Though I think I was the same way when I arrived, surrounded by the Founding Fathers and all."
"John," Jefferson said, "when I last saw you, just before I was elected, you were ten or eleven years old."
"But you dined with our family after you left office, in 1809!" Tyler had personally served the meal.
Jefferson shook his head sadly. "I am afraid that was not me."
It had been a slug? Tyler was finding this all a bit hard to believe. Maybe all the presidents here were mad.
They were interrupted as Jackson fired his pistol into John Quincy Adams again. Madison wandered over to watch, joining Van Buren.
"Does he do that a lot?" Tyler asked.
"Yes," said Harrison. "Remember, Junior--we stopped calling him Quincy years ago--stole the 1824 election from Jackson, and when Andy came here, he had just taken the oath after beating Junior in 1828. That was right after his wife died after all those election attacks on her. Andy had lost his chance at the presidency, and the memory of his wife was still fresh on his mind when he came here, so he has been taking it out on Junior ever since."
"But nothing here is permanent," Jefferson said. "See?" The father of the Declaration of Independence drew a knife and slashed it against his wrist, grimacing. The flesh opened and blood spurted out--but the blood dissipated in the air, and the flesh closed over as he watched. Within seconds there was no mark of an injury. "But it still hurts."
John Quincy Adams screamed as Jackson slashed off his ear with his sword. The ear disappeared as it fell to the ground, and a new one quickly grew in its place. Van Buren and Madison laughed.
"I hope Andy tires soon," John Adams said, shaking his head. "My poor son." He sat down on an adjourning chair, his head in his hands.
"If you have all been stuck here since you took the oath," Tyler asked, "how do you know so much about the slugs?"
"They have a device that translates their smell language into English when they visit us," Jefferson said.
A smell language? Well, why not? Then realization hit Tyler. "A slug creature has taken over my body on Earth?"
"Yes," Jefferson said, "but nobody else will notice. They learn all about you first, and so the creature knows what to do, what to say. They get four years each--a new one takes over if a president gets re-elected. After their presidency, new vacationers come in at discounted rates."
"They sense time differently than we do," Monroe said. "A year to us is about a day for them. About a week's vacation. Now if we could only get these slugs to stay off Earth like my slug replacement got the Europeans to stay out of the Americas. . ."
"The Monroe Doctrine," said Junior with a sneer. He had somehow escaped Jackson for the moment. "I wrote it, but you got the credit for it. Hey!" Jackson had grabbed him and thrown him to the ground. He impaled the wiggling Adams through the heart with his sword.
"Do they ever stop fighting?" Tyler asked.
"An injured friend is the bitterest of foes," Jefferson seemed to recite. "That applies to all of us trapped in this hellish room. Though I doubt Andy and Junior ever were friends."
"Is there any way out?" Tyler said, ignoring the screaming Junior and a loud cry of disgust from his father.
"No," said Jefferson. "We have been trying for years, but it is impossible. The walls, floors, and ceiling are impregnable, and as you can see, there are no doors. This is not a real place anyway. As near as I can tell from what the slugs say, none of this is real; it is all in our minds, inside some sort of machine."
"It is witchcraft," Jackson called out as he beat Junior with the butt of his pistol.
"Welcome to your new home, John," said Madison, who had wandered back from watching Jackson. A tantalizing smile crossed his lips. "You will be here forever."
After a while, Jackson, "Old Hickory," came over and formerly shook hands with Tyler.
"I heard we had a falling out," Jackson said. His thin frame and piercing blue eyes matched Tyler's. But Tyler did not have the scar across Jackson's forehead, a souvenir from a British officer's sword from the Revolutionary war when the teenaged Jackson refused to polish the officer's boots.
"That," Tyler said, "was with a slug that wanted to use force against the sovereign state of South Carolina when it rejected federal law."
"True," Jackson said. "But did not the slug do the very things I might have done?"
"I have no idea," Tyler said. "Your slug called me an imbecile."
Jackson stared at him. "Were you? You did support Junior in 1824."
"Only grudgingly." And supporting him had been a huge mistake, he thought. "But I supported you in 1828 against Junior, and in 1832 against Clay." Also only grudgingly, he thought. Better Jackson than those two. But just barely.
"They say you voted to censure me in 1834."
"Again, that was your slug, and that was for removing U.S. funds from the Bank of the United States. Is this an inquisition?"
Tyler knew that would hit a touchy area for Jackson. Throughout the 1828 election Jackson had faced his own political inquisition for his "adulterous" marriage to Rachel Donelson, who mistakenly had not yet divorced her previous husband. Jackson--the real one, not the slug--blamed this, and especially John Quincy Adams, for causing Rachel's death of a heart attack two weeks after the election. It was that Jackson, already perhaps half-mad and vowing revenge on John Quincy Adams, who had been transported to this magical room--and where he had met up again with the hated Junior.
Jackson continued to stare at Tyler, perhaps thinking these very thoughts. Then he gave a nod and withdrew to a chair, where he stared off into space.
Harrison had joined John Adams in his depression upon learning about his short presidency and death. He wore the same shirt he had worn when giving his inaugural address; all the presidents were in their inaugural clothes. At first, Tyler thought the presidents would like to hear about their futures, but as each of their successors came in, they had already learned that. Harrison had brought them up to date up to a month ago, and other than his death, not much had happened since.
John Adams, the second to arrive after Washington, explained what had happened to the nation's founding father. "George was their first human mind transfer, and it did not quite work. He is insane. But he still has his memory--the room was set up from his mind, even his parrot, Polly." When Tyler looked closely, he saw that the portraits were not particularly sharp, as might be expected since they were from Washington's memories. Who really looks closely enough at portraits so as to etch into the mind the intricate details?
Adams lowered his voice. "We think something also went wrong when they brought over Jackson."
After a while, Tyler gathered his courage and approached Washington, ignoring the dribble coming from his mouth. "Mr. President, I am very glad to meet you."
Washington stared into Tyler's eyes. His mouth opened wide in a slobbering grin and his tongue stuck out to the side for a moment. Then he spoke: "Georgie!"
"Yes, that is your name, Mr. President."
"Georgie! Georgie! Georgie!" the nation's first president exclaimed. Polly began squawking.
"I wish you had not started that," Adams said. "Now he will do that for hours."
Adams was right. Tyler could barely think over the sounds of the father of his country happily screaming his name over and over, the parrot's squawks, and the one-sided combat between Jackson and Junior. He had just taken the oath of office; what had happened? It still was not completely clear to him where they were. Jefferson had said they were inside some sort of machine. Like a steam engine, a cotton gin, a printing press? It did not make sense.
Would he ever see his poor wife Letitia again? Just eight days ago they had celebrated their twenty-eighth anniversary. She had been an invalid since suffering a stroke two years before, but he loved her more now than ever before. And his eight children--he could not bear the thought of separating from them. Little Tazewell, just ten years old--Tyler would never get to watch him grow up like the others? He wanted to see his children, and he wanted many more.
He leaped to his feet. The others looked up. "There has to be a way out, and I am going to find it."
Only Jefferson, and of course Washington, did not snicker or at least smile at this. "John, my friend," Harrison said, "you always were headstrong, but it is going to take more than strong words to get us out of here."
The words burned into Tyler's ears, as did the earlier words of Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution: "You will be here forever."
The presidents spent much of their days playing marbles, which was what Tyler had been doing when he had gotten the message that Harrison had died. They discussed the important issues of their day and reminisced. Sometimes even Jackson and John Quincy Adams would speak civilly, though Junior had to speak humbly or he would set Jackson off. Junior was not a humble man, and so many discussions ended with the nation's sixth president glowering in a corner, fending off number seven's blows, while John Adams turned his back on them. Junior was not a popular man; Madison, Monroe and Van Buren, and even Jefferson, his former patron, all disliked the man, and Jackson of course actively hated him. The decades of confinement had worn down their civility, and Junior baiting had become a popular pastime.
The slug appeared several weeks later. Tyler smelled him before he saw the fat creature next to the fireplace. He had grown used to the idea that nothing here was actually real, and so did not overreact to the creature's appearance. He did take a step back as he stared at the monster.
It was about the size of General Tyler's horse, probably massing five hundred pounds. The green body was covered in dripping slime, which disappeared in mid-air as it fell off. Under its body were dozens of short, thick legs, like a millipede. The front two hung off its chest, and were smaller, ending with hands with six long, slender fingers. Two huge, expressive eyes on eyestalks with tiny pupils stared at Tyler.
"You are John Tyler," the slug said, the voice coming from a medallion that hung about its huge neck. A puff of air came out of a hole in its forehead, giving a variety of unfamiliar smells. "I am a slug." A lemon scent wafted over him. Tyler wondered if the creature knew that its species name translated into such a derogatory term. Shouldn't they be called lemons instead?
One of the creature's eyestalks glanced about the room at the other presidents, most of whom were approaching. They all froze in place, with Jefferson's mouth opened in comical fashion as if about to ask a question, and Junior in mid-air from a shove from Jackson. Then both eyestalks focused on Tyler.
"My name is Rotten Apples." The rotten apple smell from the puff of air from the forehead overpowered Tyler. He fought the urge to throw up.
The slug tapped the medallion with a long, delicate finger. "This medallion translates my puff speech into your English. I myself learned English in about an hour, and need no translator. I represent Galactic Vacations in an upcoming case, Cherry Methane versus Galactic Vacations." Tyler did not cover his nose in time to avoid the sudden cherry methane smell. He reflexively began to throw up, but only gagged since there was nothing to throw up, since they did not eat in this world. He stuck his hand out, another reflex from his former world, but quickly removed it before having to grasp one of the creature's slimy-looking front hands.
"Cherry Methane is suing us for breach of contract," the alien continued, seeming not to notice Tyler's problems. More unfamiliar smells wafted over him, some pleasant, most nauseating. "I believe you know how our business works--I have listened in on recordings of your discussions with the others here."
"You are just a bunch of body-nappers," Tyler said.
"Yes, that is accurate. It is a highly profitable business; the company made a lot of jarquals. And now that business is threatened. Cherry Methane claims that it contracted to vacation as president of your United States for four years, in the person of William Henry Harrison. It will ask you to testify on its behalf."
"Did it have a contract for four years?" Tyler asked. It seemed strange to refer to intelligent beings as "it," but that was how the translator and the alien referred to themselves.
"Yes, but what does that matter?" The slug's eyestalks glanced at each other for a second, and then refocused on Tyler. The creature leaned forward, its eyestalks just inches from Tyler. "It will want you to testify that this Harrison died after only thirty of your days, roughly one-fiftieth of the contracted time."
"That is what happened," Tyler said.
"So?" Rotten Apples said, cutting the short distance between its eyes and Tyler in half. A bit of slime fell off an eyestalk and onto Tyler's chest, but even as he stepped back the slime disappeared. "It has nothing to offer you. We do."
"You will let us go?"
Rotten Apples again leaned forward, forcing Tyler to step back against the wall to avoid eyestalk-to-eyeball contact. "We can bio-engineer your old body back, put you in it, and return you to earth. But in return, you have to do something for us."
"Let me guess. You want me to testify in your court that Harrison served his entire four years." He did not need his legal background to figure that out.
"And if I do not?"
The slug smiled with a mouth big enough to swallow Tyler whole. "There is no word for it in your language, but you are inside a sort of thinking machine. Nothing here is real. Even my appearance is not accurately portrayed, though it is close. But what happens here feels real. We can make things uncomfortable for you and the others as well. Extreme heat will not kill you, but you will feel it."
A burst of heat hit Tyler. He gasped as fire covered his skin. Halfway through an agonized scream, the fire went away.
"Or you can cooperate. As a gesture of goodwill, you may have a violin." One appeared at his feet; apparently the creature knew he played one. "Some of you play a game with marbles. As a further gesture of good will, I will increase your marble supply." A large sack appeared on the floor. Rotten Apples kicked it and it jingled from the marbles inside.
Tyler was tempted to tell the creature what he thought of his marbles, but his legal training stopped him. Insults rarely served any purpose. On the other hand, if he played along, at least he would not wake up one morning in Dante's Inferno.
"All I need," Rotten Apples said, "is for you to testify that William Henry Harrison served four years as president, thereby fulfilling our contract. Then we will win the case against Cherry Methane." The slug paused. "And then you can go home."
"Cannot Cherry Methane or a constable or someone send someone to Earth to check it out on their own?"
"Earth is a long way off," Rotten Apples said, the rotten apple smell growing stronger as Tyler fought off a gag. "Sending someone's consciousness to Earth and bringing it back is instant and does not cost much, but to send actual matter costs a fortune. And since we are the only ones with the technology to transfer minds, there is no way they can investigate."
It sounded suspicious to Tyler. Could they not subpoena the equipment for mind transfer? He would have to investigate that if he had a chance.
"If I do this," Tyler said, "how soon would I be back on Earth?"
"How about the others?"
Rotten Apples shook its giant head side to side, a rather cumbersome way for such a creature to say no. It had probably copied it from humans. "Sorry, the offer is only for you."
"Then I will not do it."
Tyler screamed as intense heat hit him again for several seconds.
"We can do that to all of you. Or we could turn off the machine, and you and the other presidents would just cease to exist. But we would rather be reasonable. Will you testify on our behalf?" Its eyestalks bobbed up and down.
"I will do it," Tyler said, shaking slightly.
"Very good." The alien stepped closer. "Do not even think about doing a double-cross on us. It may cost us the case, but you have no legal rights, and afterwards you and your friends will answer to us. Think about it." The creature suddenly moved forward, bumping its gigantic head against Tyler's, sending him flying against a wall. Then it stepped back and disappeared.
"What--" Jefferson said as the presidents came back to life. He looked at Tyler sprawled on the floor, rubbing his head. "I see you have been introduced to how slugs shake hands."
"What happened?" John Adams asked.
Tyler explained the deal he had been forced to agree to.
"But only you will go free?" Adams asked. "How convenient."
"That is all he would do."
Jackson stared at him with cold eyes. "Sounds like you sold us out." He fingered the sword in his belt.
Tyler was playing the violin one long afternoon while Jefferson and John Adams played marbles. It had been about two months since his arrival. Jackson walked back and forth, waving his arms as he cheered on Jefferson; he had bet Van Buren ten of the new marbles they had received that Jefferson would win. Junior sat in a chair as far from Jackson as possible, reading a bible. The others watched the marbles action and listened to the violin. Then the room once again went fuzzy and disappeared.
Tyler reappeared inside a large, blindingly lit orange room. As his eyes adjusted to the light, shapes came into focus. He sat in a hard chair on a platform in front of rows and rows of slime-dripping slugs. Eleven more slugs stood in a row on the left. All the slugs were brightly colored in ways that took up the entire rainbow. Some were solid colored, but others were striped or spotted. He recognized the green Rotten Apples standing off to the right. A larger bright yellow slug stood off to the left.
"Your name?" The voice came from a translator that hung from a shiny black sphere that floated in front and just above him, about two feet in diameter. Air puffed from a small hole facing him; it smelled like sweet lima beans.
"I am John Tyler, president of the United States until I was kidnapped. Where the hell am I?" He rarely used such language, but somehow it seemed appropriate.
"He uses verbal language to introduce himself, like a child!" said the large yellow slug, waving its eyestalks up and down. It smelled like barbecued chicken. Like Rotten Apples, a translator hung about its neck.
"That is because humans cannot puff," said Rotten Apples. "You knew that; that is why you learned English this afternoon, so stop showing off for the jury. Since he has identified himself, can we move on?"
The black sphere dropped lower so that Tyler looked almost directly into its air puff hole. "To use the phrasing you are familiar with, do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" More sweet lima bean and other smells came over him.
"Who or what are you?" Tyler asked.
"Not very bright, is it?" The larger slug on the left now had one eyestalk on Tyler, one on the row of slugs on the left. "I am Barbecued Chicken, and I represent Cherry Methane." Tyler gagged as the mixture of barbecued chicken, cherry methane, lemons, rotten apples, and other smells assaulted him.
"You will pardon the witness," Rotten Apples said, puffing more smells at Tyler as both eyestalks looked at the row of slugs on the left. "It is not a very smart race."
"Is this a courtroom?" Tyler asked.
Barbecued Chicken's eyestalks glanced at each other, and then waved up and down, as did many others in the room. A powerful mint smell saturated the air, which came out of the black sphere's translator as laughter. Tyler wasn't sure if the audience or the black sphere were laughing; probably both.
"Yes, you are in a courtroom," said the black sphere as the mint smell finally drifted away. "I am the judge in the case of Cherry Methane versus Galactic Vacations. The eleven very patient slugs on your left are the jury. Standing behind Barbecued Chicken is the plaintiff in the case, Cherry Methane."
Tyler had lots of courtroom experience, but this was not a normal courtroom. He looked over at the plaintiff. The dark purple Cherry Methane was the smallest slug in the room, and looked somewhat shriveled and dried up, with little slime. Even from this distance he could smell the cherry and especially the methane.
"Now," the black sphere continued, "will you answer the question about the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
Tyler's attention returned to the metallic judge. "Are you some sort of machine?"
There was more minty laughter from the translator as numerous eyestalks waved up and down.
"Yes, I am some kind of machine," the black sphere said. "Please answer the question."
Fine, Tyler thought, I will play along. "I do."
"Finally," Barbecued Chicken said to more alien laughter. The black sphere floated up to the ceiling and hung there, overlooking the courtroom.
Rotten Apples approached. "Galactic Vacations, a well-established and respectable business, has been accused of breaking its contract with the vacationer Cherry Methane, who contracted for a four-year term as president of the United States of the planet Earth, in the person of William Henry Harrison. Cherry Methane claims that the said Mr. Harrison died only thirty days into his term, approximately one-fiftieth of the contracted term. Galactic Vacations strongly contests this. As his vice president, you were a witness to these events. So my question to you, Mr. Tyler, is did the president known as William Henry Harrison serve his entire four years as president, yes or no?"
It was the moment of truth, Tyler thought. Or more specifically, the moment of non-truth, if he wanted to avoid extreme discomfort for himself and his fellow presidents, and possible termination. If he lied, he would be free, and he would save the other presidents as well, even if he could not get the rest of them out of their purgatory. Was that so hard? It was for the greater good. In a story for children, of course, he would tell the truth and face the consequences, as would others because of his actions. But this was real. Presidents have to render hard decisions. Besides, he would rather face Jackson's wrath than an angry Rotten Apples--though that was a close call, he thought with a slight grin.
Just as in politics, truth often takes a back seat to pragmatism. Perhaps he could later on find a way to get the word back to this slug world that he had been forced to lie. Perhaps, back on Earth, he would find a way to stop the alien body-napping of presidents. Perhaps.
He glanced at Cherry Methane, and gagged reflexively at the thought of methane. Both its drooping eyestalks were on him. He looked about; so were all the other eyestalks in the room. The eleven jurors especially seemed transfixed on him. Were they everyday slugs, brought in to do their duty to their country, to find the truth and bring about justice under the law?
The spearhead shaped tuft of hair was hanging down his forehand; he brushed it off and faced the black sphere. "No, he did not," Tyler said. "He died of pneumonia after thirty days."
"What!" cried Barbecued Chicken, the smell of sulfur wafting out. "Remember your talk with Rotten Apples?"
"I am not going to let you cheat Cherry Methane to save myself and others," Tyler said, "even if what it did was not right either. What you do to us will not be my fault; it will be your doing." He looked up at the black sphere. "They tried to bribe and blackmail me to lie in court."
Barbecued Chicken's eyestalks drooped. "I guess you win."
"So do the humans," said Rotten Apples.
"True," said Barbecued Chicken. Everything in the orange room disappeared except for Tyler and the two lawyering slugs.
"What is going on?" Tyler asked.
"I lied to you," Rotten Apples said. "Galactic Vacations already lost its case and was shut down; we helped prosecute it. The idiots kept records of everything, even the minds of those whose bodies they stole, so the case was easy. There will be no more slug vacationers running your country."
"But we have been trying to figure out what to do with you and the other presidents," Barbecued Chicken said. "I thought we should just shut down the machine your minds are stored them in, and they would just stop existing, and the problem would be solved. Rotten Apples disagreed; he is a softie. So we decided to test if you, the most recent representative of the human race, were worthy of continued existence. I bet him fifty jarquals you would not pass."
"An informal test, with no legal backing," Rotten Apples said. "We agreed that if you passed the test, you would all pass."
"I hope you appreciate how expensive this will be," Barbecued Chicken said. "And I do not just mean the jarquals I lost. Mind transfer is instant, but sending matter is not. Re-engineering the original ten bodies and sending them at near-light speed over 170 light years in a hibernation ship to your Earth is an expensive process."
Tyler only vaguely understood much of what they were saying, but he got the gist of it. "We are going home?"
Both slugs waved their tentacles up and down. "As I said earlier," Rotten Apples said, "they are not very bright. But they are worthy. Yes, you are going home. It is going to take a long time to get you there. But you will be sleeping the whole trip."
"Why not just do that mind transfer thing and put me back in my body, and the same for the others whose bodies are still alive?"
"How can I put this politely?" Rotten Apples said. "I cannot, so I will be honest and blunt. You feeble-minded humans do not have the mental strength to withstand a transfer from this distance into a biological body. But I do have some good news."
"What is that?"
"I think we can cure your Mr. Washington."
"Order! Order!" The vice president of the United States slammed the gavel down over and over to no avail. Another Senate bill, he thought, and another filibuster. Perpetual gridlock between the parties in congress, with the president helpless without the support of 60 senators, which he would never get. The country was falling apart; compromise was needed. Like that's going to happen, he thought.
He'd gotten the Senate together to pull an all-nighter in the off-chance sheer exhaustion would bring the parties together, but the lack of sleep had instead brought out their worst as mature and respectable Senators screamed at each other about real or imagined flaws in each others character. Only at the formation of the country and before the Civil War had the country been so divided. One had led to the Great Compromise of 1787, two houses of congress, and the U.S. Constitution; the other to the Civil War and 600,000 deaths. In which direction are we headed? He feared for the country, but saw little hope. A nation divided against itself cannot stand, not in Lincoln's time and not in the 21st century.
In frustration and disgust, he stepped out from behind his desk that overlooked the Senate floor and the shouting. He sneaked through a back door, the secret service following as he wandered down the hallway. He found the exit and stepped outside, away from the toxic atmosphere inside.
He sat down on a bench, breathing the fresh air and squinting against the bright early morning sunshine. The secret service took up posts on either side at a discreet distance. He'd hoped he and the president could bring the country together, but it was an impossible task. To the zealots on both sides of the aisle--the ones who controlled the political dialogue--compromise meant sacrificing your principles, and nobody had the stature to survive the inevitable onslaught of character assassination. He and the president had tried, but they had failed miserably, with their approval ratings dropping to barely survivable levels. Perhaps they should resign. But if they did, who could save the country?
He stared off into the distance, toward the sun rising in the east. A group of people approached. With the sun's glare in his eyes he at first couldn't make them out. Then out of the bright sunshine came the curious group of ten men in archaic early 1800's costumes, one of them wearing a sword. The secret service watched suspiciously as the ten walked out from under the sunrise and confidently strode up the steps of the Capitol.